Avengers: Endgame review

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo
Cast : Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Danai Gurira, Benedict Wong, Jon Favreau, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Brolin
Genre : Action/Superhero
Run Time : 3 hours 1 minute
Opens : 24 April 2019
Rating : PG13

The following review is spoiler-free.

Following the catastrophic events of Avengers: Infinity War, earth’s mightiest heroes have been crushed. Thanos (Josh Brolin) achieved his goal, wiping out half of all living creatures in existence. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) are all reeling from this loss.

Our heroes must regroup to fight to restore what was so cruelly taken from them. Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), who was thought to have been among the decimated, was lost in the Quantum Realm. He returns, meeting the surviving Avengers to tell them he might have an idea. What follows is an epic mission to mend what has been broken, one that will take its toll on the Avengers, but a mission which they must complete.

Avengers: Endgame marks the end of the Infinity Saga, a 22-movie cycle comprising the first three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There is a lot on this movie’s shoulders, since it must address the events of Infinity War and function as a satisfying conclusion to the first 11 years of MCU movies. There will be MCU movies after this, of course: Spider-Man: Far From Home is being released in July. However, audiences know Avengers: Endgame must be far from just another MCU movie, and it is.

The ending of Avengers: Infinity War was an audacious mic-drop, a cliffhanger which audiences had to wait a year to see the resolution of. The villain won: it was like The Empire Strikes Back, but orders of magnitude more devastating for the heroes. The intervening year was filled with speculation and theories. Avengers: Endgame packs in the surprises and twists and turns from the very beginning of its three-hour runtime. It’s an extremely clever piece of writing from screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and a massive logistical ordeal overseen by directors Anthony and Joe Russo.

Without going into any details about the plot, it reminded me of how Eric Heisserer described writing The Thing (2011). That film was a prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 film of the same name, and writing it involved reverse-engineering specific aspects of that film to show audiences how things got to that point. Heisserer called it “doing it by autopsy”. The writing of Avengers: Endgame must have been a similar process.

This is a movie which is constructed to reward fans who have stuck with the franchise since the beginning. It is mostly fan-service, but “fan-service” has taken on such derisive connotations that it hardly seems fair to call it that. This is a movie which will break box office records and it’s absolutely not a standalone movie – audiences are expected to have a strong familiarity with not just Infinity War, but practically every single MCU movie preceding that, because many of the character arcs trace their way back to the beginning. It’s no coincidence that after Thanos’ snap, the original six team members who formed the group seen in The Avengers remain.

The characters of the MCU and their journeys have earned considerable cachet with audiences, and Endgame is intent on leveraging that for maximum effect. By turns heart-rending and triumphant, there are moments in this film which will feel like moments that fans have been waiting for ages to see onscreen, and other moments that are so sad, fans will hope they never had to witness. The film does tend towards the melodramatic, but perhaps this is justified given the operatic scale of the MCU.

The MCU’s original trinity of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor all figure heavily into the plot. Endgame sees Tony taking the loss of Infinity War especially hard, while Steve finds his usual optimism flagging in the aftermath of the snap. Some of the film’s best, most honest moments are quiet dialogue scenes, including when Steve participates in a support group meeting for people coping with the loss of their loved ones in the decimation. The gigantic battle sequences, while cheer-worthy, can feel a little bloated and synthetic as they are in many lesser comic book movies.

While there is a necessary bleakness to Endgame, there are still moments of levity which, unlike in many earlier MCU movies, do not infringe on the emotional heft. The MCU started out with Iron Man, a movie which depicted fanciful technology, but was a safe distance from all-out sci-fi or fantasy. Things have changed since then, characters from the cosmic and mythic corners of the MCU openly interacting with the earth-bound ones. “I get emails from a raccoon, so nothing sounds crazy to me anymore,” Natasha remarks.

Avengers: Endgame is about a clash between good and evil on a cosmic scale, promising blockbuster spectacle and expensive entertainment. While it delivers all that, its greatest asset is its soul. It’s a movie about endings and beginnings, the past and the future and about parents and children. It’s a movie about what we take with us and what we leave behind. There is tremendous catharsis to Endgame and it’s a testament to how Marvel studios constructed something objectively impressive with the MCU, but above all it’s a “thank you” to viewers who have joined the characters on the journey.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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The Mule review

THE MULE

Director : Clint Eastwood
Cast : Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña, Laurence Fishburne, Allison Eastwood, Taissa Farmiga, Dianne Wiest, Andy García, Clifton Collins Jr., Eugene Cordero, Noel Gugliemi
Genre : Crime/Drama/Mystery
Run Time : 1 h 56 mins
Opens : 10 January 2019
Rating : M18

Clint Eastwood is 88-years-old and has been working steadily since the 50s, so it makes sense that some of his recent films deal with aging. In this drama, his character’s old age is an asset, because it makes him less suspicious – as a drug mule.

Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a nonagenarian horticulturist and Vietnam War veteran who has fallen on hard times after his house and farm is foreclosed upon. Earl is estranged from his family, including his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest), his daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood) and his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). Earl comes across what he thinks will be a one-off opportunity as a drug runner for a Mexican cartel. Because the work is easy and pays extremely well, Earl finds himself coming back, unexpectedly becoming one of the cartel’s top mules.

DEA Agents Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (Michael Peña) learn through an informant about a mule the cartel refers to as “Tata”, Spanish for “grandfather”. The deliveries are being brought into Chicago, with the agents closing in on the elusive mule. Back in Mexico, cartel kingpin Laton (Andy García) is pleased with Earl’s performance, but his lieutenants are spooked by the increasing DEA activity, taking issue with Earl’s penchant for unscheduled stops. Earl knows his successful run working for the cartel cannot last forever and faces the inevitable: he will either be killed by cartel enforcers or captured by the DEA.

The Mule is based on an article in The New York Times by Sam Dolnick, entitled The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule. Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk, who got his big break penning Eastwood’s Gran Torino, have taken loose inspiration from the life of Leo Sharp, a World War II veteran who became a drug runner for the cartel run by El Chapo. Eastwood’s presence as director, producer and star means that it’s obvious that he has projected himself onto the Earl Stone character, who is drawn as a well-meaning, good-hearted man who just isn’t properly appreciated by his family and winds up doing bad things even though he is not a bad person.

Eastwood is too in love with the character, who functions as an avatar of himself, for the movie to accomplish very much. Having directed 34 movies, Eastwood more than knows what he’s doing on the technical front and draws out good performances from his talented cast. However, he is squarely the centre of attention. Earl berates younger people for constantly being on their smartphones and functions as a stubborn guardian of a bygone age, an old-fashioned stalwart who doesn’t get the respect he deserves. He also has at least two threesomes with prostitutes, scenes which one imagines Eastwood doing multiple takes of just to be sure.

Cooper and Peña are given underwritten roles, but Cooper does get one good scene set in a Waffle House in which he gets to do a bit more than chase after Clint Eastwood. Dianne Wiest is the standout in the cast as Earl’s ex-wife, who harbours less ill-will towards Earl than his daughter Iris (played by Eastwood’s real daughter Alison) but who still wishes things could’ve been different. The skill with which Wiest conveys quiet sadness ensures the relationship is not overly treacly.

The scenes in which Earl is friendly towards the cartel members lower on the ladder who warm to him are quite endearing. Both Andy García and Laurence Fishburne are on hand to lend additional gravitas in relatively small roles as a cartel boss and a senior DEA agent respectively.

The Mule is not an instant classic the way some of Eastwood’s films are, and it is more obviously a vanity project than several other late-period Eastwood movies. There are moments when it’s charming and the Earl Stone character is not the worst person to spend a couple of hours with, but the movie fundamentally lacks any urgency or drive. The moments of tension, when it feels like Earl’s Faustian bargain is catching up to him, are too few and far between. It is ultimately saved by the compelling nature of the true story and Eastwood’s unquestionable competence as a director but is not one of the more essential entries in his oeuvre.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

A Star Is Born (2018) review

A STAR IS BORN

Director : Bradley Cooper
Cast : Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle, Anthony Ramos, Rafi Gavron, Greg Grunberg, Michael Hanley
Genre : Drama/Romance/Musical
Run Time : 135 mins
Opens : 4 October 2018
Rating : M18

It’s a tale of love, loss and rock and roll: A familiar story is given a new lease of life by star/director Bradley Cooper and his leading lady Lady Gaga in this musical romantic drama.

Cooper plays hard-drinking rock star Jackson Maine, whose years on the road and life of excess have left him numb. Jackson finds new meaning in life when he chances upon Ally (Lady Gaga), a young singer performing at a dive bar. Jackson decides to take Ally under his wing and invites her onstage to sing a song she wrote with him at his concert. Jackson and Ally fall madly in love, but Jackson’s demons haunt their relationship, as prominent producer and Ally’s new manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) tussles with Jackson for control of the rising talent’s career.

A Star is Born is the third remake of the 1937 film starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. The film was subsequently remade in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason, and in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. A third remake of the classic film has been in the works for a while, with actors including Christian Bale, Tom Cruise, Will Smith and Leonardo DiCaprio variously linked to the project. Clint Eastwood was going to make the film with Beyoncé. Considering the previous well-known iterations of the story and the somewhat bumpy production process, one would be forgiven for fearing a messy result.

Those fears are firmly assuaged with a film that has a linear, uncomplicated plot, but is inhabited by characters who feel like real people and whom audiences will care about. Praise has been heaped onto both Cooper and Gaga, who prove deserving of said praise. This does not feel like the work of a first-time filmmaker, and Cooper directs with a clear-eyed confidence. The cinematography by Matthew Libatique, oft-collaborator of Darren Aronofsky, contributes to the balance of the dreamlike and gritty, real atmospheres which entwine hypnotically.

This a movie about music, so it lives or dies by the soundtrack. Thankfully, the songs are great and do help in moving the story along. Lukas Nelson, son of Willie, and his band The Promise of the Real appear as Jackson Maine’s band. Nelson also served as Cooper’s ‘authenticity consultant’ and co-wrote the song Black Eyes. Lady Gaga co-wrote many of the film’s songs, including the signature track Shallow, a passionate, soaring duet.

Gaga’s hordes of little monsters across the world already know she’s talented, and while she has appeared in movies and on TV before, Gaga displays a side of herself we haven’t yet seen in this revelatory performance. While Lady Gaga has been an established pop star for a decade, she convincingly portrays a fresh-faced ingenue who undergoes a whirlwind transformation into a musical sensation. It’s an incandescent performance refreshingly free of vanity that lets Gaga showcase the full range of her artistry without coming off as self-indulgent.

Cooper’s performance as a shambling rock star who is a shadow of his former self is eminently sympathetic. We gradually learn bits of Jackson’s tragic back-story and through his heated interactions with manager/older brother Bobby, see how Jackson’s self-destructive tendencies wear on those around him. The character is constantly burning bridges and trying to put out the resulting fires. Cooper draws on his own struggles with substance abuse earlier in his career, making this a personal, raw performance. Cooper also has a lovely singing voice that’s very apt for the type of character he’s playing. Cooper cast his own (absolutely adorable) dog Charlie in the film.

The supporting cast, including comedian Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father Lorenzo and Dave Chappelle as Jackson’s friend Noodle, all bring authentic, endearing performances to the fore. Musical theatre star Anthony Ramos is a joyous presence as Ally’s friend and co-worker Ramon but doesn’t get to sing. Rafi Gavron’s Rez comes off as a little flat by comparison, the manager character being the most one-note.

While the palpable chemistry between the leads carries this a long way, A Star is Born does demand a level of suspension of disbelief. Ally’s meteoric rise through the industry is almost too good to be true, and we rarely see Jackson and Ally’s relationship from the outside – in real life, gossip and speculation from fans and the media is sure to weigh at least a little on the romance.

There are many moments when the movie veers too close to all-out melodrama – it seems like Gaga is willing to go there, while Cooper reins things in. Co-writer Will Fetters’ credits include the syrupy Nicholas Sparks adaptations or Sparks-esque romances Remember Me, The Lucky One and The Best of Me, and some vestiges of that remain. Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Munich, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Cooper rewrote Fetters’ initial draft. The movie’s ending plunges head-first into schmaltz, but by then, A Star is Born has earned the right to be shamelessly manipulative.

The rapturous reviews and deafening Oscar buzz are in danger of over-hyping A Star is Born by a little, but there is still plenty to admire. This is a film that will make audiences hungrily expect Cooper’s next directorial effort and Gaga’s next starring role. It’s a story that’s been told before, but this heady, emotional, heartfelt take on it proves that in the right hands, stars can indeed be reborn.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Avengers: Infinity War review

For inSing

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

Directors : Anthony and Joe Russo
Cast : Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, Peter Dinklage, Benedict Wong, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Pom Klementieff, Karen Gillan, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin
Genre : Action/Comics
Run Time : 2h 29m
Opens : 25 April 2018
Rating : PG13

We’re going to do things a little differently.

Going into Avengers: Infinity War, you’ve been told to avoid spoilers like the plague, and yet, we want you to read this review, which will be spoiler-free.

This will be a review, and yet not a review. We’re hoping that you’ll read this, but if you don’t wanna, that’s fine.

We’ll say it up front: this is a particularly tricky movie to write a spoiler-free review of, but we’ll give it the best shot we’ve given anything.

Marvel has hyped Avengers: Infinity War as the most ambitious crossover event staged in entertainment media. They’re not wrong. No matter which way you look at this movie, it’s tricky to put together. It’s a puzzle with the pieces constantly moving.

Even with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War under the Russo brothers’ belts, there are still many times during Infinity War when one is wont to wonder aloud “how did the guys from Arrested Development and Community get here?” This is a film with a sprawling scope, even for a genre which is all about scope. The Russo brothers, with the in-built support at Marvel Studios, do a commendable job of wrangling it all.

This reviewer would love to have been a fly on the wall while the Russo brothers and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were hammering this out. Imagine all the iterations, all the bits and pieces that maybe didn’t quite work, before we got here.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A studio hasn’t quite been able to announce to the audience “right, you should’ve seen all 18 of these movies, or at least most of them, before you watch this. Off you go, then.” Not even long-running franchises like the Bond movies, Star Wars, or Harry Potter can really demand that, and know that most audiences would have fulfilled that demand. There’s a swaggering confidence about Infinity War, and yet it’s not off-putting or self-congratulatory. If anything, Marvel Studios is deliberately making things really difficult for themselves going forward.

Over the years, the MCU has garnered its fair share of detractors. There are purists, there are ardent fanboys who have fixated on one niggling aspect or another that dissatisfied them, there are those who loyally back the other team (this reviewer has been accused of being both paid off by Disney and being biased towards DC movies), there are those who say it’s all too funny and nothing is taken seriously enough. Depending on the context, some aspects of these criticisms are valid, but it’s important to take a step back and consider all the myriad hurdles that the people making these films have cleared to get here.

At the core of Infinity War is a MacGuffin hunt that has spanned multiple movies, with so much being set up in previous instalments, leading up to this. The film takes inspiration from the Infinity Gauntlet comic book arc in 1991, written by Jim Starlin, and the 2013 Infinity crossover event, written by Jonathan Hickman. Infinity War is the culmination of intergalactic warlord and ‘mad titan’ Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) search for the Infinity Stones. We’ve seen five of the six stones in previous movies, and he’s looking to collect them all.

This is a quest that has attendant consequences and sacrifice, and from the beautifully staged, dramatic and grave opening scene onwards, viewers have a good idea of what to expect. There are plenty of jokes, but unlike in previous MCU movies, this reviewer felt less of a sense that said jokes were stepping on the dramatic beats.

This reviewer wasn’t the biggest fan of Civil War, because there was noticeable bloat and the central conflict didn’t really get enough room to breathe. Weirdly enough, that seems like less of a problem here. Clocking in at 149 minutes and costing an estimated $300-400 million, it seems a foregone conclusion that Infinity War would be more bloated than a beached whale, but it moves with great finesse.

Infinity War could easily have come off as a string of unrelated set-pieces. It’s evident that this was not constructed by devising the set-pieces first, with the plot being filled in around those. Our massive ensemble is handily organised into groups, with said groups meeting and then diverging as the story progresses. The groups all make sense, and there is considerable time dedicated to reinforcing and evolving existing relationships.

The romance between Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) elicited the most emotion out of this reviewer. The Guardians of the Galaxy team up with Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and we delve a little deeper into the relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her estranged adoptive father Thanos.

It seems like Markus and McFeely really enjoyed writing the Guardians, nailing the voices of each character. There’s a consistency which feels organic and yet must’ve been challenging to achieve. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Doctor Strange/Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) butt heads and egos, while Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) faces more struggles in getting control of his alter ego, the Hulk. A good portion of the film is set in Wakanda, which in Black Panther, has just opened itself to the outside world, its people getting more than they bargained for here.

It wasn’t really that long ago when we thought we’d never see Peter Parker in the MCU, so it’s a genuine thrill to see Holland’s Spider-Man interact with so many characters and feel like he was always meant to be in this line-up.

Thanos feels like an actual character rather than just an obstacle our heroes must overcome. We get just enough back-story and there is respectable gravity to the proceedings. There’s a lot of fantastic acting on display from everyone involved. This is not a movie in which the spectacle does all the legwork.

Avengers: Infinity War is a staggering work of virtuosic audacity. Its filmmakers play the audience like a fiddle. The ending is either a howl-inducing gut punch or sheer genius – maybe both at once. You’re probably going to be frustrated at some point or another, but there will be gasps, there will be cheers, there will be laughter, and depending on how fragile the audience at your screening is, there might be open sobbing.

Given the nigh-insane parameters the filmmakers were working within, Avengers: Infinity War is the best movie it could’ve been.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

For F*** Magazine

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2

Director : James Gunn
Cast : Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 2h 16min
Opens : 27 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

Pop the tape in the deck and pump up the volume, ‘cos Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Pratt) and company have returned. Our loveable gang of a-holes crosses the cosmos in an adventure that brings Quill face-to-face with his biological father, Ego (Russell) the Living Planet. That’s not the only family reunion taking place: assassin Gamora (Saldana) and Nebula (Gillan), the daughters of Thanos who have long been at each other’s throats, cross swords again. Jolly big guy Drax (Bautista), cantankerous cybernetically-enhanced raccoon Rocket (Cooper) and wee sapling Baby Groot (Diesel) are along for the ride. The team makes a new ally in the form of Mantis (Klementieff), an alien empath raised by Ego. They also make a new enemy: the haughty High Priestess Ayesha (Debicki) of the Sovereigns, who has put a bounty on the Guardians’ heads. In the meantime, Yondu (Rooker) is in danger of being displaced, as Taserface (Sullivan) leads a coup against him within their gang of Ravagers. The fate of the galaxy once against rests on the wildly different-sized shoulders of our ragtag heroes.

Before Guardians of the Galaxy’s release in 2014, several industry watchers were predicting it could be the first high-profile misfire for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Following its rollicking critical and commercial success, director James Gunn was feted as having accomplished the nigh-impossible. Now that the first Guardians film has become a juggernaut and Chris Pratt is an established movie star, that dark horse sheen has worn off. We can imagine Gunn having a mini “now what?” crisis as he was prepping the sequel. He certainly had his work cut out for him, and Vol. 2 retains much of the wacky charm that made the first film as distinctive and enjoyable as it did, while further exploring what makes this colourful cast of characters tick.

Gunn stated in a Facebook post that he dislikes sequels bringing characters back to square one. In Vol. 2, we see arcs progress, and everybody gets their moment in the sun. It’s a precarious balancing act, and at times the push/pull between far-out spectacle and exploring motivations and backstories is palpable. As with several MCU outings before it, there’s the danger of the humour undercutting the drama. However, that’s not as big a problem here, because this is the funniest MCU movie yet. Since there are so many jokes, some don’t land, and the more juvenile innuendos might make parents nervously hope their kids won’t ask for explanations about them later.

In hyping up the film, Pratt promised Vol. 2 would be the “biggest spectacle movie of all time”. As much as Gunn continues to do his own thing, Vol. 2 is noticeably working overtime to top the first one, and this can sometimes be exhausting. The set-pieces are varied and thrilling and the visuals are dazzling, but sometimes there’s a little too much going on – this is most noticeable during the finale. The visual effects work is splendid (apart from one iffy de-aging job), and the environments are consistently mesmerizing. Production designer Scott Chambliss, whose credits include Star Trek (2009), Star Trek Into Darkness and Tomorrowland, has outdone himself with the cosmic-Rococo palace which Ego calls home. Vol. 2 of Quill’s Awesome Mixtape is the right degree of eclectic: the opening credits unfold to ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky, while the lyrics of Looking Glass’ Brandy become a key plot point.

Gunn’s dialogue preserves the voices of each returning character, and the principals reprise their roles with entertaining aplomb. Pratt has the ‘fun action hero’ thing down pat and yes, gets another gratuitous shirtless scene.

Saldana struts about with utmost confidence, and pulls off a potentially ridiculous scene in which Gamora wields a ludicrously oversized cannon. Bautista continues to prove that he is a gifted comedian, showcasing timing sharper than the daggers Drax brandishes.

Cooper gets some of the film’s best lines, delivering them in the vocal approximation of mange. If you thought Diesel was overpaid for saying the same line repeatedly in the first one, he doesn’t even sound like himself here. Anyone could have voiced Baby Groot. Still, that doesn’t detract from how adorable the character is, those limpid eyes and that plaintive expression sure to elicit “aww”s aplenty from the audience.

Russell is a big get, and if there’s anyone who should play the father of a daring spacefaring scoundrel, it should be Snake Plissken/Jack Burton himself. He’s enjoying himself, and to Gunn’s credit, this doesn’t become an endless string of references to the iconic entries in Russell’s filmography. Like Star Wars before it, Guardians trades in mythical archetypes. This is the tale of a god, the mortal he fell in love with, and the progeny they bore: think Zeus, Danaë and Perseus. The ‘team-up with long-lost dad’ device has been employed in everything from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Aladdin and the King of Thieves. Therefore, even given its fantastical trappings, Vol. 2’s take on things is fairly predictable.

Debicki, looking like she’s escaped the clutches of Goldfinger, is yet another underwhelming MCU villain – but it seems like this was intentional this time around. Rooker gets some surprisingly emotional notes to play amidst a pirate drama in which Yondu gets displaced by mutinying Ravagers. We gain more insight into the rivalry between Gamora and Gillan’s steely, formidable Nebula, and the soap opera-ness is a safe distance from being too cheesy.

Klementieff’s Mantis is a naïf to the nth degree, and jokes are had at her expense while we’re meant to empathize with her. The character’s convoluted backstory in the comics has been handily distilled, and she makes for an interesting addition to the team. Sean Gunn, brother of James, gets an increased part that, if one is being cynical, can be chalked up to nepotism. It’s hard to stay cynical while watching something like Vol. 2, though.

Keep your eyes peeled for several cameos beyond the standard Stan Lee moment, and take a quick glance around the hall to see the cognoscenti nodding in approval when an obscure Marvel character pops onscreen. Five (count ‘em) stinger scenes are spread throughout the end credits. Vol. 2 might not have the same bold, devil-may-care freshness that its predecessor had, but there’s no shortage of vim and verve. The cutest little tree creature you’ve ever seen doesn’t hurt, either.

Summary: While there’s a bit of a struggle in balancing the spectacle with the character beats, Vol. 2 possesses most of the offbeat charm, visual splendour and knee-slapping humour as its forebear.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

War Dogs

For F*** Magazine

WAR DOGS 

Director: Todd Phillips
Cast :  Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, J.B. Blanc, Bradley Cooper, Barry Livingston, Kevin Pollak
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 1 hr 54 mins
Opens : 1 September 2016
Rating : M18 (Coarse Language and Drug Use)

War Dogs posterWar, what is it good for? If you play your cards right, raking in the dough. It’s 2005, and the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan is in full swing. David Packouz (Teller) is a directionless twenty-something living in Miami, reluctantly working as a massage therapist. When his childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Hill) shows back up in town for a mutual friend’s funeral, the two do some catching up. It turns out that Efraim has founded AEY Inc., an arms dealership, and has managed to secure several contracts supplying weapons and other equipment to the U.S. government. David goes behind the back of his pregnant girlfriend Iz (de Armas), who is against the war, and goes into business with Efraim. The pair soon find themselves in way over their heads, travelling to Jordan, Iraq and Albania as they chase lucrative deals. Is it just a matter of time before the dog that is success turns around to bite them?

War Dogs is based on Guy Lawson’s Rolling Stone article Arms and the Dudes, which he expanded into a book. Screenwriter Stephen Chin called on his own experience, having travelled to Iraq while trying to buy the rights to the story of two American businessmen who were setting up a radio station there. With War Dogs, director Todd Phillips of the Hangover trilogy fame faces the challenge of making the audience root for inherently unlikeable characters. Both Efraim and David idolize Tony Montana, with a huge poster of the Scarface protagonist decorating their office. They’re simultaneously scrappy underdogs and shady wheeler-dealers. Multiple artistic liberties are taken in the name of making things more exciting, and Alex Podrizki, the third partner, doesn’t feature in the film at all. That said, it does feel like the audience is getting a peek behind the curtain of a world most of us know nothing about. The technicalities of how Efraim and David go about their business are explained clearly enough without being too dry.

War Dogs Miles Teller and Jonah Hill 1

The narrative conceit is that David is the strait-laced one while Efraim is the brash go-getter, and as such, David is our way in and is the narrator of the story. It might actually be that way in real life, but it definitely seems like character traits have been greatly exaggerated to keep things interesting. Jesse Eisenberg and Shia LaBeouf were initially considered for the lead roles, presumably Eisenberg for David and LaBeouf for Efraim. Instead, we have Teller and Hill. The two generate watchable buddy chemistry, and there’s an undercurrent of tension because we know it’s somehow all going to implode in the end.

Few can play dazed and confused like Teller, who for most of the film, is unwittingly being strung along. Of the two main characters, David is ostensibly closer to the traditional ideal of a movie hero, and the real David Packouz has a cameo as a singer at a nursing home. The real Efraim Diveroli wanted nothing to do with the movie. It makes sense that Teller is given the lower-key role, with Hill having the time of his life playing a character who is as boorish as he is savvy. Hill doesn’t have to be endearing or charming, and he steals the show with much gusto on multiple occasions. As expected, de Armas is relegated to the playing the stock nagging girlfriend who actually has a point, but is mainly in the movie to look pretty, since the two male leads don’t.

War Dogs Miles Teller, Ana de Armas and Jonah Hill

The world of “grey market” arms dealing offers plenty of dramatic storytelling possibilities, with room for sanctimonious finger-wagging as well – the compelling Lord of War comes to mind. Phillips tries to play down the seriousness of the subject matter, instead playing up the goofy absurdity of the premise. Just as Efraim and David find themselves in over their heads, it seems Phillips does as well, since the consequences here are graver than any of the mishaps that befell the Hangover Wolfpack. Speaking of those guys, Bradley Cooper makes a brief but memorable appearance as a notorious gun runner. Also, celebrity poker player and infamous playboy Dan Bilzerian cameos as himself. It seems the kind of people who idolize Bilzerian are exactly the target audience for this film.

War Dogs Jonah Hill, Miles Teller and Bradley Cooper

War Dogs mostly steers away from insightful satire, instead taking the “have your cake and eat it too” tack of glamourizing its subjects while also mocking them. It’s inevitable that impressionable younger viewers will aspire to be just like Efraim and David: who cares if it’s moral or even legal if there’s a payday to be made? It seems the takeaway is “if these stoner dude-bros could wriggle their way into multi-million dollar contracts, why can’t I?”

War Dogs Jonah Hill and Miles Teller in Albanian arms warehouse

It is entertaining and intermittently fascinating, but it’s hard to shake the sense that Phillips’ lowbrow slacker dude comedic sensibilities might not be the best fit for the true story. Yes, there’s comedy to be mined, but diving headfirst into the can of worms and actually making a statement about the implications of war profiteering might’ve been a more worthwhile enterprise.

Summary:  War Dogs plays to the strengths of both its stars, but in playing squarely to the dude-bro demographic, it passes up the chance to be searing and impactful.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Burnt

For F*** Magazine

BURNT

Director : John Wells
Cast : Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Omar Sy, Daniel Bruhl, Matthew Rhys, Uma Thurman, Emma Thompson, Alicia Vikander, Lily James
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 100 mins
Opens : 29 October 2015
Rating : NC16 (Coarse Language)

Can you smell what the Rock(et Raccoon) is cooking? Raccoons are known for foraging for food in the trash, but this drama takes place in the rarefied realm of haute cuisine. Bradley Cooper plays Adam Jones, a former rising star in the Paris culinary scene who crashed and burned due to his self-destructive tendencies. Now clean and sober, Adam is hoping to make a fresh start and earn his third Michelin star with a new restaurant in London. He coerces maître d’ and hotel heir Tony (Brühl) to help him manage the front of house, with his old colleague Michel (Sy) as his sous chef. Adam takes a shine to single mother Helene (Miller), whose talents he feels are not put to proper use. The opening of the Adam Jones at the Langham earns the ire of Adam’s fierce rival Montgomery Reece (Rhys), and Adam has to keep his demons at bay as he strives for that coveted third star. Matters are further complicated by drug dealers to whom Adam still owes a great debt, as well as the presence of his former flame Anne Marie (Vikander), the daughter of Adam’s late mentor Jean-Luc. 

The title ‘Burnt’ conjured up images in this reviewer’s head of an alternate-universe Disney animated film starring a pyrokinetic princess named Elsa. Burnt was earlier named ‘Adam Jones’ and before that ‘Chef’, but that title was taken by Jon Favreau’s 2014 film. Since Chef was the last major narrative feature centred on making it in the kitchens of restaurants, Burnt does invite comparisons with it. Sure, Chef was more than a little self-indulgent, but it did have warmth, soul and earnestness and was clearly a passion project of Favreau’s. Directed by John Wells, Burnt is cynical and formulaic, a rock star redemption tale set in the high-stakes world of choleric chefs smashing plates on the floor and yelling at their underlings. Adam Jones is established as being obnoxious and obsessed, and the underlying message seems to be that if you’re good at something, it doesn’t matter how awfully you treat everyone around you. 
Steven Knight’s screenplay packs in the contrivances and somewhat clumsily attempts to explain kitchen lingo to the layman. There is a joke in which a plastic sous vide pouch is derisively called a “fish condom”, and this joke is apparently funny enough to repeat. This is a slick, well-paced film which paints a tantalising picture of a glamorous world while also emphasising how challenging it is to become a star in said world. Cinematographer Adriano Goldman’s camera glides from one cook’s station to the next, capturing both the frenzied activity and the aesthetically-plated dishes that leave the kitchen. Michelin Guide reviewers are presented as secret agents and everyone is struck by awed panic when they think these critics have arrived. The food, plated by food stylist Nicole Herft, looks very tempting indeed, with celebrity chefs Marcus Wareing and Mario Batali serving as consultants. 
Cooper dons his chef whites again after starring in the short-lived TV show No Reservations, based on Anthony Bourdain’s autobiography, ten years ago. Both Bourdain and the fictional Adam Jones struggled with substance abuse in the past, with Burnt chronicling Adam’s quest to rise from the ashes. Cooper is charismatic as usual and gets to break out the French (both Français and swearing), but the character is aggressively unlikeable. The film doesn’t try to make his driven nature endearing, explaining it away with a tragic back-story and everyone around Adam makes concessions for him because he’s that talented a chef. The film’s attempts to humanise the character come across as treacly and manipulative. It’s a character who’s difficult to root for, and this is supposed to be charming in and of itself, when it isn’t at all. 
Cooper is backed up by a good supporting cast, though the characters aren’t drawn with too much depth. Brühl is an endearingly if cartoonishly prickly fussbudget as Tony. There’s an obvious homoerotic subtext between him and Adam that is acknowledged but of course, played very safe. Instead, Adam’s love interest is Miller’s Helene, marking a reunion for the American Sniper co-stars. The film goes the eye roll-inducing route of having Adam treat Helene condescendingly, even humiliating her in front of the other kitchen staff, but Helene eventually warms to him because he’s just that sexy. It seems that the main purpose Sy serves is as a volley partner for Cooper to bounce his French dialogue off of. Rhys’ portrayal of the chef whom Adam is at loggerheads with is stops a safe distance short of being the stereotypical bully, though it does lack nuance. Vikander may be one of this year’s breakout stars from her roles in Ex Machina and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but she gets really little to do here as the one that got away. Emma Thompson is called upon to dispense gnomic advice as Adam’s therapist and Uma Thurman shows up in what is essentially a cameo as a food critic. 
After Gordon Ramsay’s fiery temperament has been ingrained into popular culture, at this point, it seems like a movie about a chef who’s quiet and calm and treats his co-workers politely would, ironically enough, be more interesting than a film about an unstable hair-trigger culinary wunderkind. Cooper is watchable, but no matter how strongly the movie wills it, it’s tough to get in his corner. It’s a “rise-fall-rise” narrative with few twists and additions to the formula, but if good-looking people and even better-looking food is what you’re after, Burnt has got you covered. 
Summary: We’ve gotten through the bulk of this review without any corny food metaphors, so allow us this indulgence: Burnt is lukewarm at best. 
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong 

Limitless TV Series pilot review

LIMITLESS TV SERIES PILOT REVIEW

Thanks to RTL-CBS Entertainment Asia, I got a sneak peek at the pilot episode of the new TV series premiering during this fall’s TV season, Limitless. Limitless is a spin-off of the 2011 feature film of the same name, which was in turn based on Alan Glynn’s novel The Dark Fields.
TV shows launched off the backs of movies usually feature the same main character as the film, recast with a different actor, as the series’ protagonist. The Limitless show does something a little different – it is set four years after the events of the movie and Senator Edward Mora, the protagonist of the film, drops in as a recurring character. Mora is played by Bradley Cooper, who since starring in Limitless, has gone on to A-list stardom and multiple Academy Award nominations. He’s also an executive producer on the series and his involvement is the biggest selling point of the show.
The premise of the show, as with the film it’s based on, is built around the miracle drug NZT-48. The circular clear pill grants users access to the full extent of their brain capacity, resulting in superhuman intelligence. Naturally, there’s a catch – the drug is also highly addictive and causes crippling side-effects. Brian Finch (Jake McDorman), a struggling musician, has no other options but to take on a temp job at a Wall Street bank. While there, he bumps into Eli (Arjun Gupta), his former band-mate, now a successful investment banker. Eli gives Brian one NZT pill and before he knows it, Brian is in deep over his head, implicated in a crime he did not commit and pursued by the FBI. Brian has to convince agents Rebecca Harris (Jennifer Carpenter) and Spellman Boyle (Hill Harper) of his innocence, while desperately hunting for his next fix. FBI Special Agent in charge Nazreen Pouran (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) is interested in tracking down Brian for her own ends, viewing him as a potential asset in the further development of the NZT drug.
The pilot is written by Craig Sweeny and directed by Marc Webb, of (500) Days of Summer and The Amazing Spider-Man fame. Sweeny has previously written for the CBS crime dramas Elementary and Medium. The pilot sticks closely to the flashy visual style brought to the film by its director Neil Burger, with snazzy graphical representations of Brian calling on obscure snatches of knowledge to get out of a tight spot. There are also plenty of dramatic long zooms through swathes of New York streets. While experiencing the effects of NZT, everything gets a warm amber tint, like in the movie. It feels slickly put together, but also quite generic. This is yet another police procedural on CBS, undisputed home of the police procedural. Even with its high-concept hook, one gets the feeling that the show might fall back on formula at least a little. There’s also the matter of how practically everyone knows that the “10% of your brain” chestnut is discredited pseudo-science.
Jake McDorman is your standard white male TV actor – he’s reasonably likeable, but nowhere near as magnetically charismatic as Bradley Cooper is, and it seems McDorman will remain in the shadow of his American Sniper co-star. The Brian Finch character is meant to be as similar to Edward Mora while being distinct enough to co-exist instead of supplant Mora, which is a tricky thing to do. Both Mora and Brian start out as frustrated artists – Mora a writer; Brian a musician. They dabble in the high-stakes Wall Street financial world, although Brian doesn’t get in as deep as Mora did. Since this is just the pilot, Mora’s role in the story and his motivations have yet to be clearly defined, but it is a definitely a boon for the show that they’ve secured Cooper in a recurring role, as his star power may help paper over whatever familiarity the show possesses for audiences weary of the police procedural genre.
Jennifer Carpenter’s Rebecca Harris is your bog-standard tough FBI agent with a tragic past that will be explored in some capacity as an ongoing arc. The scenes in which Carpenter and McDorman are alone and playing off each other, Agent Harris understandably wary of the super-intelligent suspect, are well-written and competently performed. One thing I did like was that Brian is shown as having a large family and his close to his parents, striving to help his terminally ill dad. It seems inevitable that his family will be put in some kind of jeopardy down the line but it serves as a solid, if predictable, emotional core for the character.
The pilot is entertaining, well-paced and provides enough background information such that one won’t be completely lost without having seen the film that the show is a continuation of. It remains to be seen how much of the show can be sustained by its association with Bradley Cooper, the visual flourishes and the gimmick of the superhuman intelligence. There is something of a “that’s the best they could come up with?” quotient to the idea of using the abilities granted by NZT to solve crimes, but it seems there’s room for that to work on a TV series. If you’re a fan of the movie, it’s worth sticking around to see where this goes. There’s also the added bonus of Jake McDorman not having to deliver any lines in embarrassingly garbled Mandarin!
Limitless premieres Sept 23rd on RTL/CBS Asia, direct from the U.S, airing Wednesdays at 9 pm (8 pm Jakarta/Bangkok)

Guardians of the Galaxy

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
2014
Director: James Gunn
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Josh Brolin
Genre : Action, Adventure, Sci-fi
Opens : 31 July 2014
Rating : PG13 
Run time: 121 mins

            Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is drawing to a close, the release of The Avengers: Age of Ultron imminent. With Guardians of the Galaxy, the MCU heads, to quote Dragonheart’s Draco, “to the stars”. Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Pratt), taken from earth as a child, is in search of a prized orb. His treasure hunt sets him on a collision course with some rather colourful characters. These include Gamora (Saldana), an assassin and the adopted daughter of the intergalactic tyrant Thanos (Brolin), Drax (Bautista), hungry for vengeance after his wife and child are slain, Rocket (Cooper), a smart-mouthed, cybernetically-enhanced raccoon and Groot (Diesel), a humanoid tree creature. This unlikely band calls themselves “the Guardians of the Galaxy”, confronting bounty hunter Korath (Hounsou), treacherous zealot Ronan (Pace) and Gamora’s jealous adopted sister Nebula (Gillan) in order to prevent Ronan from getting his hands on a cataclysmic weapon.

            Following the departure of director Edgar Wright and actor Patrick Wilson from the upcoming Ant-Man, murmurs have begun to swirl that the executives at Marvel Studios are exercising too much creative control over their films. That Guardians of the Galaxy even got made assuages those fears at least a little. Producer Kevin Feige says this is the “riskiest movie [he’s] done since Iron Man” and that is not hyperbole. In the hands of maverick director James Gunn, he of Slither, James Gunn’s PG Pornand Troma Pictures fame, GotG is wild, woolly and drastically different from everything else that has come before in the MCU. If Thor, drawing on Norse mythology, was outré, this is certainly even more so. The screenplay which Gunn co-wrote with Nicole Perlman is sharp and consistently funny, irreverent yet far from cynical and alienating (hee) as it well could’ve been.  

            In an age where it feels Hollywood has gotten more and more homogenised, it is refreshing to see a big-budget, mass-market blockbuster that is, well, this refreshing. Spectacle is not in short supply, the world-building on display truly dazzling and electric. For at least a few kids out there, this is going to be their Star Wars: Xandar, Knowhere, the Kyln, the Dark Aster their Tatoonie, Bespin, Hoth or Death Star. These are colourful worlds but they still retain grit and believability. The visual effects work, the character animation on Rocket and Groot in particular, is very commendable. The tree-creature and the talking raccoon both convincingly inhabit the same space as the flesh-and-blood actors, their expressions and movements nuanced and even genuinely moving.

            Chris Pratt is proving himself to be an unlikely but most deserving leading man, shedding the pounds and putting on the muscle to play Star-Lord. His comedic timing and roguish charm combine to make him an ideal protagonist, reminiscent of Han Solo in the best way possible. Saldana continues to hold her own as the capable, commanding action girl of the moment and Bautista brings heart and warmth to the literal-minded, muscle-bound Drax. Taking Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper, arguably two of the bigger names of the cast, and having them provide voices for animated characters can be seen as yet another intentionally unorthodox move on the part of the filmmakers. Saying “I am Groot” repeated ad nauseam may sound like an easy paycheck but Diesel, who broke our hearts as the Iron Giant back in 1999, brings that same basso profundo kindness to Groot – and sounds great angry, too. Hollywood superstars with little real voice-acting experience often “die in the booth” –Cooper does not. As the irascible raccoon, he is amusing but also makes the character far more than the requisite funny talking animal and is certainly a better choice than Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey, rumoured to be attached to the part.

            Unfortunately, the film suffers slightly in the villains’ department. Lee Pace delights in being showy and menacing, Karen Gillan is still a knockout playing against type, even painted blue and with a bald head and Josh Brolin’s appearance as Thanos is but a teaser for his later involvement in the MCU. All quite serviceable, it’s just that their confrontations with our heroes are not as dramatic and explosive as they could’ve been. Still, this is at the expense of character development for the titular team and this is more than forgivable. The eclectic supporting cast including names as disparate as Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro and Michael Rooker add a distinct flavour to the proceedings as well.

            Guardians of the Galaxy is everything this reviewer loves about movies, particularly movies that defined his tastes during childhood. There’s action, adventure, humour, visual fireworks and just enough heartstring-tugging sentiment. The soundtrack is excellent as well, Star-Lord viewing his mix-tapes as precious family heirlooms and the only physical reminder of his late mother he has left. And ultimately, this is a movie about a ragtag bunch that may be far-out but are still relatable and are totally the kinds of people (and raccoons and tree-creatures) you’d want to sit in a cantina with and just hang out. Oh, and the post-credit scene for this one is the biggest treat any hard-core fan of the weirder corners of the Marvel Universe could ever want.


Summary: Out of this world.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong